For April 2016’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement’s Assistant Director, Meg Popick, discusses her experience at the 2016 NAFSA Advocacy Day in Washington D.C. NAFSA is a professional association for international educators including, but not limited to, professionals serving international students and scholars in the U.S. as well as students enrolled in U.S. institutions who are studying, researching, and interning abroad. In addition to providing professional development opportunities to those working in the field, NAFSA works to support international education through public policy efforts. One such initiative, Advocacy Day, is an annual event during which educators from around the country visit Washington D.C. to inform members of Congress how international education impacts their specific state and district, and why the U.S. needs to be more globally engaged. Here is Meg’s story:
On Sunday, March 13th, I traveled to Washington D.C. for NAFSA’s annual Advocacy Day event. I was a bit nervous as I was not 100% sure what to expect and what would be expected of me. I knew that I was going to be speaking with members of congress (or their staffers) about two specific public policy issues: Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act/Cuba Trade Act and High-Skilled Immigration Reform. As an international educator, I had a professional interest in supporting this legislation. However, as a U.S. citizen, I felt a personal obligation to advocate on the behalf of important issues that without change, will continue to negatively impact the U.S.’s economy and diplomatic relations with the world.
After a day of training with the NAFSA public policy staff, our group of seven international educators from across New York State headed to the capitol. We had appointments with staffers from both New York Senators’ offices, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as from three State Representatives’, Louise M. Slaughter (district 25), Steve Israel (district 3), and Carolyn Maloney (district 12), the Congresswoman from my district in Manhattan.
Still a bit nervous, I passed through a metal detector, entered the Hart Senate Office Building, and headed towards Senator Schumer’s office. Realizing that I did not show photo identification and having free range to travel throughout the building, I remembered that like all U.S. citizens, this building belongs to me. As I looked around, I joked that something in this building, regardless how small, was mine and mine alone: a screw at the base of an American flag, a small piece of floor tile, a tissue box. My tax dollars hard at work. Although I was being facetious, the symbolism gave me the confidence I needed to speak up during our meetings with congress’ representatives. I realized that my voice was just as important as any others, and as an international educator, I also had the responsibility to speak on behalf of the international students I serve who do not have the same voice in American politics, but who are deeply impacted.
We arrived at Senator Schumer’s office and waited for his staffer to speak with us. As our group excitedly took photos next to the plaque outside the Senator’s office, Chuck Schumer exited through his office’s door. With a big smile, he welcomed us, offered to take a photo, and asked what we were doing in D.C. Although we only had a minute with him, we had the chance to tell Senator Schumer about NAFSA, and our support for the normalization of relations with Cuba and High-Skilled Immigration Reform. As his staff member politely whisked him away to an important meeting, the Senator informed us that he was in support of our advocacy efforts, and just like that, he was gone. We were left with a great picture and encouragement to continue to advocate on the behalf of our students, our institutions, and ourselves.
Over the course of the next few hours we met with staffers from five congressional offices. Lucky for us, and unlike some of my colleagues from some less immigration-friendly states, each representative was either a co-signer on the Cuba Acts or gave the impression they would be in favor if the Acts went to a vote. In regards to immigration reform, there was plenty of support, but there was also plenty of realism that comprehensive immigration reform was not going to happen in the current election year. Regardless of the unlikelihood of any major changes occurring this year, all of the offices saw the need for changes to a broken immigration system that directly impacts international students and alums of U.S. institutions including Juilliard.
Not only did we have the opportunity to discuss the immigration solutions provided by NAFSA, I was fortunate enough to discuss why immigration reform is important to the performing arts, and how without changes to the current system, the U.S. will be losing incredible talent that American institutions educated, cultivated, and trained. Unfortunately, even those members of congress who are in favor of high-skilled immigration reform, are primarily focused on immigrants in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). When speaking with the staffers, I explained that the emphasis on “STEM” must be extended to “STEAM” in order to include the Arts; an essential part of America’s cultural identity. We also discussed that there are plenty of other fields that are equally important to the economic development of the U.S., and New York in particular, such as business, liberal arts, and healthcare. However, immigration reform is not just about how the U.S. can reap the economic and cultural benefits of retaining foreign talent.
The importance of immigration reform and the normalization of relations with Cuba extends far beyond politics, economics, and culture. Real comprehensive reform is about humanity; being able to travel freely to any country one wishes, keeping families together, giving DREAMers a chance at a life in the only home they know, and showing the world that the U.S. is a country accepting and appreciative of all members of the international community. To reiterate the overarching message from the NAFSA training (and any Miss America pageant), at the end of the day, the end goal is the same: world peace. Advocacy Day 2016 may not have accomplished this lofty goal, but the work done on Capitol Hill was a small step in the right direction.